If you’re not already familiar with the rumors of Yankee handcuffs at First Bull Run, go here and get caught up (this article will be at the top of the page since it also carries a “handcuffs” tag – scroll down to the first article and read forward, if you get my drift). If you’re already hip, read on.
A little more fuel on the fire comes from Forgotten Valor: The Memoirs, Journals, & Civil War Letters of Orlando B. Willcox – thanks to Jim Rosebrock for jarring my memory on this. On page 301, Willcox describes an encounter with the enemy some days after his capture at First Bull Run:
Among our visitors who were numerous & mostly for curiosity, were a few of my old Army friends, generally polite but not one of them did me any good & some were insulting. Almost every stranger inquired, “What di you come down here for? Do you expect to subjugate us?” But, after all, it was from strangers that I experienced the most courtesy & most tangible comfort. Col. Lay, from the U.S. Army but now on Gen. Beauregard’s staff, came to inquire about the handcuff story which [had] created so much noise in the South. The story was that 30,000 handcuffs designed for the rebels were brot by Gen. McDowell & were captured. Both Ricketts & I denied it point-blank, & offered, if they could find them, to be the first to wear them. Lay afterwards came back & expressed Gen. Beauregard as satisfied, but to this day the tale never has been corrected, but has been kept alive to foment the passions of the South.
So, this story of handcuffs seems to be just that, a story, one likely propagated to further demonstrate the dastardly nature of the Northern opponent. It seems unlikely that so many handcuffs could, first, be carried on to the field (they were big, heavy, bulky things and would have required dozens of wagons to transport) and second, have been completely lost to history, physically speaking.
But what is the source of the story? How did “Gossip Zero” come up with the idea in the first place? Well, I may have stumbled across a clue in the book I’m reading right now. I picked up Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization, by Richard Miles, because I had a hankering to learn about the Punic Wars. 142 pages into a 373 page book and the first of the three Punic Wars hasn’t even started yet. The Carthaginians are still going at it with the Hellenic cities of Sicily, mostly Syracuse. Hannibals and Hamilcars abound – what, are there only two names in Punic? It’s all very confusing, and the long string of Scipios haven’t even been introduced by the Romans. Needless to say, I’m learning a lot, but If you’re into ancient history you’re better served by Elektratig.
So, back to the handcuffs. Miles lays out a compelling case that for several millenia, first the Greeks, then the Romans, and then those who followed in the study of classical history have conducted a very effective smear campaign against Carthage. In this case – but for sure not in the case of our Civil War – the history was written by the victors. And as we know, educated men in the 19th century were by and large educated in the classical sense: one attended university to become a gentleman, not an engineer or a journalist, or even an accountant or attorney. So learned folks – the kind of folks who made officers – were typically well schooled in Greeks and Romans. We often run across mentions of folks like Cicero and Cato in their writings. So I wonder how well the following anecdote was known at the time, and if it was perhaps the genesis of the Yankee Handcuffs myth. On the aforementioned page 142:
In [Sicilian Greek historian] Timaeus’ account of the later wars between Carthage and Syracuse, the complex strategic reasons why it was important for Carthage to intervene militarily in Sicily, like those of the Persians in Greece, were reduced to little more than a wish to enslave Hellas [Greece], beautifully articulated in one episode by an apparent discovery of 20,000 pairs of manacles in the Carthaginian camp after a victory [by Agathocles of Syracuse, I'm guessing], or simply a hatred of all Greeks.
Is this where the Confederates got the idea? Makes sense to me. It wouldn’t be the first time history was plagiarized in an attempt to stir up support. P. G. T. Beauregard had borrowed liberally from the rhetoric of the defense of New Orleans some 45 years earlier in his “Beauty and Booty” proclamation (the word then was that Sir Edward Pakenham had promised both to his men if they would take the city). Proving it, on the other hand, is problematic.